Expose publisher pressed on lawsuit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am

State urges out-of-court settlement of former cadre's libel suit over book about exploited farmers

The government is stepping up pressure on the publisher of a banned book exposing the dark side of rural life in China to settle a libel lawsuit with a former official named in the publication.

Chen Guidi, who wrote the award-winning An Investigation of Chinese Peasants with his wife Wu Chuntao, said he was told by sources the People's Supreme Court had approached the People's Publishing Group to pay former Linquan county party boss Zhang Xide to drop the lawsuit. 'I called a vice-president of the publishing house after I heard the news. He told me they were unwilling to pay but they could do nothing but pay if there was administrative intervention [from the government],' Chen said.

The book detailed years of mistreatment and extortion of farmers in Fuyang, Anhui province, and became an instant sensation, selling 150,000 copies before it was banned in March 2004.

Mr Zhang sued the authors and publishers over a section which, he said, falsely claimed he had imposed exorbitant levies on farmers and violated birth control rules.

When reached yesterday, Mr Zhang said he was not asked to withdraw the case, but admitted the Fuyang court was working to settle the case without passing a verdict.

Legal sources said the party's propaganda department and the General Administration of Press and Publication had also pressured the publisher to settle the case out of court because authorities wanted to avoid a court verdict. 'If they [court] ruled in favour of the authors, it would encourage people to criticise the government and the Communist Party is not prepared for that yet. But, if they ruled in favour of Zhang Xide, it would seriously undermine the credibility of China's judicial system,' one of the defence lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang, said.

'Since we have rejected proposals to settle the case out of court, maybe they think asking Zhang to withdraw the case is the only way out,' Mr Pu said.

Chen said so far he had not heard of the publisher making any agreement but one of his lawyers had rejected a proposal last year by Anhui court officials to settle the case amicably. The Fuyang Intermediate People's Court has dragged its feet about ruling on the high-profile case since a four-day hearing in August, 2004.

Observers said the best-seller had upset top government leaders including former president Jiang Zemin and former premier Zhu Rongji with its relentless criticism of both leaders' agricultural policies.

The widely followed trial two years ago turned into an emotional battle between farmers and local officials - with tearful farmers recounting their plight on one side and angry local officials defending themselves on the other.

Chen said he was furious about the administrative intervention. 'The government should not intervene and this case is a litmus test of rule by law in China. We might submit the case to the National People's Congress,' he said.

Chen said paying the plaintiff would only give people the impression that the content in the book was incorrect.

Farmer Wang Xiangdong, who testified in the trial about the plight of farmers, said farmers would not accept such an arrangement.

'It is so unfair to farmers,' Mr Wang said.